Build a Deacon’s Bench
Seating Project: A deacon’s bench will provide you with storage and a comfy place to sit, whether it’s at your front door or the foot of your bed.
The frame and panel construction in this bench makes for a solid piece of furniture, and the clean straight lines are aesthetically pleasing in any surrounding. Dowel, biscuit and stub tenon joinery keep this build simple, while adding strength to the finished piece.
The frame and panel sections are fastened with stub tenons. Once the plywood panels have been glued in place, the resulting panel is very strong. (Photo by Rob Brown)
Assemble the Panels
With the parts cut to size, Otto assembles each section. Make sure to keep each assembly square during glue-up.
Once a curved form is made, Otto applies glue to the laminations and fits them into the form (above). Clamps are then used to bring the two halves of the forms together, forcing the laminations into a curve (below).
Strong and Simple
3/8" dowels fasten the armrest rails and back seat rails to the legs. A dowel jig works wonders in this situation, but dowel centers can also be used. (All three photos by Rob Brown)
Screws secure some of the parts on this bench. If you select the plug material carefully, you can create an almost invisible cover-up.
Machine a small groove near the visible edge of a piece that will be butt-jointed to the leg. Excess glue will collect in this groove, rather than squeezing out on a visible surface.
Small trim, to cover up any small gaps in the interior of the bench, can be bought or made. Glue and pin it in place. (Photo by Rob Brown)
Once the seat is hinged in place, a stay will need to be installed to keep the seat up when it’s opened. The stay easily attaches to the underside of the seat, but blocking will have to be attached to the interior of the bench in order to accept the other end of the stay. Also notice that Otto lined the interior of this bench with aromatic cedar.
The finished back view of the bench, showing the back frame-and-panel assembly, along with the seat assembly, both of which are attached to the back legs.
A three-stage build
While the bench is not overly complicated, breaking it down into three construction stages makes it easier to manage. The first stage is the frame and panel assemblies: the front, sides and back. The second stage includes the upper seat back assembly, the small side assemblies, the armrests and the legs. Once you have those sub-assemblies prepared, the third stage is to bring everything together with the seat and interior of the bench, before applying a finish.
While building the individual sections, pay close attention to wood grain direction and patterns. By doing this, you’ll end up with a much more cohesive, eye pleasing piece. And a note regarding similar parts: many parts are the same size, and many of those parts go through the exact same machining processes. A good example is the vertical stiles that make up the main panel assemblies. Group them together for the simplest build.
When making the frame and panel sections in stage 1 and the arm and back slat sections of stage 2, it might be best to make the assemblies slightly oversized initially, then once the sections are made, cut them to final size at the same time so the critical dimensions of ‘like parts’ are all the same.
Stage Frame and Panel Assemblies
The majority of the parts are made of 3/4″ stock, so planing all the stock to thickness is a good place to start. The main difference is the back and side slats that are 1/2″ thick. I ripped the parts to final size and length, making sure to account for tenon length on the ends of the vertical stiles. Next I machined the mortises and tenons for the front, side and back frame and panel assemblies, and ran a groove to accept the panels, where required. The groove was centered on each of the parts’ edge.
Dry-fit the rails and stiles so you can calculate panel measurements, then cut the 1/4″ plywood panels to size. Keep an eye on veneer patterns when choosing your panels and try to match for consistency. Break the edges of the plywood panels with sandpaper or a block plane so they fit into rails and stiles easier.
Sanding components before glue-up is a must. Once that chore is taken care of, you can assemble the frame and panel sections.
Stage Slat Assemblies, Arm Rest and Legs
Armrests are made up of laminated 1/8″ stock, which is bent over a form. Build a small bending form out of MDF or plywood for the desired curve. Re-saw 1/8″ veneers with a bandsaw or tablesaw and plane or sand them flat. Make veneers oversize so you can trim the glued lamination to final size. Spread a thin coat of glue on each veneer and clamp them solidly into the bending form. Once the glue has cured, cut the armrests down to width, but leave them longer than final length.
With the armrest rails and seat back rails cut to finished size, line them up and mark them for biscuits (or tenons, if that’s the route you want to take) to join the slats to the rails. Center the slats on 3/4″ rails for an equal inset on both sides. Sand the parts then glue-up the assemblies, keeping everything square. At this point, you can trim all the subassemblies to finished size, then cut and fair the arcs on the top of the seat back assembly and the bottom of the front assembly. The arc on the top of the side assemblies will have to match the curve in the underside of the armrest.
Dry-assemble everything, then mark and cut the large notches in the back of the armrests so they mate neatly with the leg. Cut the armrests to length. Screws fasten the armrests to the inside of the back leg. You can also use screws to fasten the armrests to the front legs and arm side rails, or you can just glue the armrests directly to the rails and clamp them in place. All the screw holes will eventually be plugged and sanded flush.
The legs can come from 8/4 stock or can be laminated to final thickness. Cut the legs to finished length, and gently mitre the tops of the back legs. Mark the best faces for the front and outsides. Drill 1/4″ dowel holes in the side edges of the side, front and back assemblies, near the top and bottom of each section. Transfer the mating locations to the legs with dowel centers.
If you have a dowel jig, this is the perfect time to use it. The function of the dowels is to help with alignment during assembly. Shifting the front assembly down about 1/8″ allows room for a bumper on the bottom of the seat. Though most of the assemblies are set back 1/4″ from the exterior face of the legs, inset the front frame 3/4″ to allow the overhanging bench seat to finish 1/4″ from the face of the leg.
The seat back assembly gets joined to the legs with 3/8″ diameter dowels. Drill those holes in the end-grain of the back rails first, then transfer their locations to the legs and drill the mating holes. A dowel jig works perfectly in this situation, but dowel centers can also be used. Other options would be to use floating tenons or Festool Dominos, depending on your tooling. While you have your 3/8″ bit chucked in your drill, add dowel holes in the ends of the armrest slat assemblies and the mating portion of the legs. Be sure to lay out the locations of all these holes carefully, or the parts will go together askew, causing the bench to be out of square and gaps in some of the joinery.
Stage Assembly, interior and seat
After everything has been finish-sanded, glue the front panel assembly to the front legs, and the back panel and seat back assemblies to the back legs. Don’t use too much glue or excessive squeeze-out will make a mess.
One simple way to protect against glue squeeze-out where it will be highly visible is to machine a narrow groove in the edge to be glued, very close to the visible front face. This groove will capture a small amount of excess glue during assembly, before it squeezes out.
Now glue the side panel and armrest slat assemblies to the front and back sections, making sure to square everything up while it dries. Attach the armrests with glue and screws, then plug the screw holes. Once the glue has set, flush the plugs with the surface.
The simplest approach to finishing the interior of the bench is with cleats, a bottom panel and small trim. Attach 3/4″ x 3/4″ cleats to inside bottom of the front, back and side rails. Keep them as low as possible, but make sure they are not seen from the outside. Now cut a piece of 1/2″-thick plywood that just fits inside the interior of the bench, and glue it in place. Small notches will have to be cut at each corner to account for the interior corner of each of the legs. A slight gap is okay, as it will get covered. Next, either make or purchase small trim that can be mitred to cover any gaps. Glue and pin it in place to cover any small gaps. I chose to skip the small trim, and instead added aromatic cedar to the interior.
Glue and screw the seat cleat flush with the top of the back panel rail. This cleat will strengthen the hinge rail and help support the back of the seat. The simplest approach is to drill and counter- sink the cleat through the back of the back panel, then plug the holes.
The next step is adding the hinge rail between the fixed seat side rails. The hinge rail is fastened to the top of the back panel and seat cleat, and eventually secures the hinges for the seat.
To create the seat, you will likely have to laminate multiple boards to get the proper width. You could easily make the seat panel fit between the fixed seat side rails, but I chose to add breadboard ends to either end of the seat panel. If you go the breadboard end route, a bit of math will give you the dimensions required. Create the mortises and tenons to secure the breadboard ends, and bring everything together. When the seat is complete, secure it to the bench by cutting shallow mortises for the hinges, then drill pilot holes and drive the screws home.
Clamp the fixed seat side rails and the seat panel together to prevent grain tear out when routing the round-over on the front edge. Don’t worry about grain tear out on the fixed rails, as this small section will be cut off when you create the notches to fit around the legs. With a round-over bit, rout front of the seat panel and fixed rails.
Attach the seat and mark for the fixed seat side rails, allowing a 1/16″ gap. Notch the fixed rails so they fit snugly between the legs, and leave a nice gap against the seat panel. The fixed seat side rails should sit back from front edge of legs the by 1/4″. Cutting these fixed rails slightly wider than finished size allows you to sneak up on the final dimension. Drill, counter-sink, glue and screw the two fixed rails to the legs and side assembly.
The stay must clear the fixed seat side rail in order to work properly, so a filler block on the inside of the bench is required. Screw and glue it in place, then test the action of the seat and make any necessary adjustments. The bench is now ready for any final sanding and glue cleanup before applying a finish.
Applying a finish
Assuming the bench will get a fair amount of use, a durable finish would be a good idea. Two coats of Danish oil and three light coats of polyurethane are what I choose for this project, but feel free to use whatever type of finish you like.